Jim Williams: Senators, nonprofit group ask FCC to end NFL's blackout policy

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Sports,Jim Williams

There is no sports organization more popular, more valuable or more profitable than the NFL. The NFL's new television deals with Fox, CBS and NBC will net the league more than $27 billion through 2022, according to a report in Forbes -- and that doesn't include the league's deals with ESPN, Westwood One and DirecTV. All together, the contracts alone will bring approximately $200 million a year to each team.

This week, however, one of the NFL's long-standing policies is being questioned by five U.S. senators and a national fans organization, who are asking the Federal Communications Commission to end the league's TV blackout rule. The policy states that a home game can't be televised locally if it's not sold out 72 hours ahead of kickoff.

In a letter to the FCC, Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan called the blackout policy "a relic of a different time" and said that "it is time for [it] to end."

The Sports Fans Coalition, a nonprofit group trying to give fans a voice on policy issues, submitted an online petition to the FCC to get the league to do away with the policy.

The NFL disagreed, saying the blackout rule "supports contractual provisions that are fundamental to broadcast television and thereby enable universal distribution of high quality content, including NFL football, to all Americans and to our fans -- all at no cost to those fans. Sports blackout policies, supported by the FCC's sports blackout rule, promote live attendance and thus improve the stadium experience."

Evan Weiner, author of "The Business & Politics of Sports," recently discussed the blackout policy.

What is the history of the policy?

Weiner » "This all began in Los Angeles in 1949 -- a year before they began broadcasting Rams games -- when they drew 300,000 fans to the Coliseum. In 1950, they aired Rams games on local TV, and their attendance dropped to around 140,000. After the 1950 season, then NFL commissioner Bert Bell urged teams to blackout home games in an effort to keep the people in the stands instead of in front of the television. By 1953, Judge Allan K. Grim upheld the league's blackout policy, believing that it was not in violation of antitrust laws. The blackout policy that is now in effect was passed into law by Congress in 1973."

Is the rule outdated?

Weiner » "The blackout law is totally outdated. It was meant for a time when the gate made up the majority of a team's revenue for a season. With the new TV deals in place, it is clear the law should be repealed."

Examiner columnist Jim Williams is a seven-time Emmy Award-winning TV producer, director and writer. Check out his blog, Watch this!, on washingtonexaminer.com.

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